Monday, March 31, 2008

Endurance, Thy Name is Birkie

Word of the Day

I am generally not a firm believer in synchronicity but, looking back on yesterday's (pre-)pre-ride, I must say that it is, at the least, somewhat TOO coincidental that the radio program that I was listening to in the wee hours of the morning as I was preparing to set out was broadcasting a piece about the disastrous Scott expedition to the South Pole.

First, some background. Lynne and I had originally planned to do the Birkie pre-ride on Sunday, March 30. Then a couple of Lynne's friends went and got themselves married, and suddenly Lynne had a social obligation that day. So we switched the ride to Saturday, March 29. Our friends Andrew and Jason agreed to tag along (so as then to be volunteers on the day of the brevet itself).

At the beginning of the week, the forecast for Saturday was promising. Partly cloudy, low 50s. Starting Wednesday, however, Oregon's already unpredictable weather took a decided turn for the weird. Snow levels dropped to the Willamette Valley floor, along with the temperatures. Saturday's forecast went from promising to foreboding. After some consultation with our RBA, it was decided that Andrew and I would ride on Sunday, as originally planned, and Lynne and Jason (they of the slightly more flexible schedules) would ride on Monday. Hence the (pre-) pre-ride moniker.

As of Friday night, the forecast for Sunday was "chance of showers, upper 40s." Not great, but certainly something I've had no problem braving in the past. Indeed, just two weeks earlier I had traveled to Seattle for the privilege of riding 200 km in a mini-deluge. I was a bit concerned by the fact that I appeared to be coming down with a cold, but tried to think positive, non-congestive thoughts.

I spent Saturday at home, nursing the now-definite cold and watching the weather change from snow to hail to sleet to sun and back to hail, all the time thinking "Whew, I'm sure glad we postponed our ride a day." The forecast for Sunday had still trended toward tolerable, but by 10 PM Saturday evening the meteorologists had started saying things like "More of the same . . . ," and there were mutterings of accumulating snow at elevations above 500 feet. Hmmm. Our route climbed to over 1100 feet at Timber Summit, and most of the rest of the ride was at elevations between 300-600 feet. I decided to pack extra socks.

I looked at my stats from last year's Birkie, and saw that I had completed the 200 km in a relatively fast (for me) 9 hours 19 minutes. I suggested to Andrew that we could probably push our start time back as far as 8:00 and still get back well before dark. He concurred, and we arranged to meet at the Grand Lodge at 7:45.

The skies were overcast when I awoke, but it was not raining (or snowing, or otherwise precipitating). As I drove out to Forest Grove from Portland, a few sprinkles hit the windshield, but never enough to call for the wipers. I arrived in Forest Grove about 5 minutes before Andrew; we quickly assembled ourselves and went in to the front desk to get our cards stamped. It was quite chilly at this point - 34 degrees according to my computer, 33 according to Andrew's (we have the same model computer - so go figure). I was dressed for whatever element we might encounter (long sleeve wool jersey AND arm warmers, "Storm" tights, chemical toe warmers, booties, SP jacket . . .) and had packed extra socks and an extra wool undershirt, just in case. I was also trying yet another glove system - my heavy snowshoeing gloves over long-finger bike gloves. I was still riding the Bianchi, but figured this would probably be it's last brevet for a while - it is in SERIOUS need of an overhaul.

As we headed out on Pacific Avenue (Hwy 8)/Gales Creek Road, it started to precipitate.

"Cecil, it's snowing."

"I see that, Andrew."

"I don't like the looks of this."

"It will be okay."

"It's 33 degrees."

"Not by my computer. I have 34 degrees."

"Oh, well in THAT case . . ."

The snow soon changed back into sprinkly, cold rain, and we rode on. But I think that Andrew was already working out potential escape routes . . .

Gales Creek Road out to Highway 6 is about 11 miles of gently rolling rural road. The traffic on a Sunday morning was very light (this was true of our whole route, actually, but I am not sure how much of that was due to the weather). About halfway to Hwy 6, a dog came rushing out onto the road at us - much yelling ensued and it finally backed off. It was a precursor of things to come. We were later chased by dogs on Timber Road, Keasey Road, Stoney Point Road, and again by the same dog on Gales Creek Road on the way back to Forest Grove.

Traffic on Hwy 6 was very light, which was good, because the shoulder was not very clean, and I spent most of my time riding on the roadbed instead. Of course, this meant crossing back and forth over the rumble strip to move over when there were cars, and that can sometimes be tricky with skinny tires like mine. The turn onto Timber Road is well-marked (indeed, in addition to the road sign, someone had very nicely put up a poster board sign that said "Timber Road"). It had started to precipitate again, and the temperature reading on my computer had dropped to 33 degrees. My hands and toes were warm, though, and I knew that by the time I reached the top I would be pretty warm all over. I stopped, switched to a different glove configuration and opened up my pit zips.

There were patches of snow along the side of Timber Road, and those patches steadily increased in size and depth as we climbed higher. There was also quite a bit of oil that the rain had raised to the surface of the road but had not washed off. Soon, the oil patches were joined by pockets of frozen slush.

"I don't like the looks of this, Cecil."

"Neither do I, Andrew. I think we are going to be going down this hill very, very slowly."

"I'm not sure we should keep going."

"Don't worry, it'll be okay."

In hindsight, at this point I might have done well to remember the morning's radio programme . . .

The stuff falling on us from the sky at this point was still more solid than liquid, and this would hold true for the rest of the day. We did have a few brief periods of actual, wet rain (generally accompanied by a howling wind) but most of the time it was some form of solid. What FORM of solid was a chief topic of Andrew's and my conversation for the day. Well, that and Antarctic exploration. We hoped we'd fare less like Scott and more like Shackleton.

The sun came out as we reached the summit above the town of Timber. Say what you will about clear cuts, we did have a great view of the Coast Range. Although the road was pretty much clear of snow (again, thanks to the clear cut there was no shade to keep the snow from melting off the pavement), the snow on the side of the road was probably about 2 or 3 inches deep.

Timber Summit in the Morning

From the summit, the road drops fairly steeply into Timber. Because it was wet, and had been spread with gravel, I was riding my brakes. As you enter Timber, the road makes a very tight hairpin turn and right at the bottom of that turn is a very nasty, ripped-up set of railroad tracks.

Bad Tracks!

Once you get over those, there is another very tight hairpin, and then the road opens up for a long gentle down hill to Hwy 26. Across Hwy 26, it's a few more miles into Vernonia. The road itself is in pretty good condition after last December's floods, but damage is visible on either side. There is a bike path that runs along the road for a while, but it sustained flood damage in parts and has not yet been repaired. About 3 miles before Vernonia, it started snowing pretty heavily. Big fat pretty snowflakes. It didn't last more than a few minutes, however.

The sun came out just as we reached the first control in Vernonia (Anderson Park). On Saturday, this control will be staffed. It has running water, hot showers, and flush toilets. To get to the Anderson Park control, we turned onto Umatilla Street per the cue sheet. We missed the bike path, though, because it is not well marked. Umatilla Street has always been a rough road, but now it's really bad. Lots of big, sharp, skinny tire-chewing rocks.

Bam! Psssst! Rats!

From the sound, at first I thought I had a snake-bite flat, but later examination revealed a gash in the side wall ("Typical Conti wall failure," says Andrew). Normally I am capable of changing my own tires, but my brain was not working well at this point (the cold that I had hoped had gone away was coming back with a vengeance), so Andrew ended up doing most of the work, and donating boot materials. We ended up putting in two boots, because we actually missed the side wall gash the first time around, and thought the problem was a smaller gash on the tread. HOW we missed the sidewall gash, I don't know - it was quite large. In any event we spent quite a bit of time on tire repairs, and by the time we were ready to head off to the next control it was, of course, precipitating again.

The out and back on Keasey Road to the info control is another gently rolling road, with a couple of climbs/descents that are a lot of fun in dry weather, less fun when it is wet. We were chased by another dog. Again, with much shouting we convinced it to turn back. At the intersection with C Burn Rd. we figured out the answer to the NEW info question, and turned back the way we came. We turned left onto Stoney Point Road, which is yet another gently rolling road that connects to Hwy 47. It's hard to see oncoming traffic at the turn, so we were cautious. This of course meant that we had less momentum for the climb that starts immediately after that left turn. "Gently rolling" is a pretty good descriptor of most of this route, by the way. The average incline is 3%, and the steepest climb (near Timber, of course) is only 10%.

At this point the precipitation was shifting back and forth between rain and sleet. Once we turned onto Hwy 47, the rain stopped for a while, but we could see dark clouds heading toward us in waves. The wind picked up considerably; a headwind, of course. About 5 miles from the Birkenfeld Store, we saw a very dark cloud approaching very quickly.

"I don't like the looks of what's headed toward us."

"Neither do I."

Luckily, we came upon a fire station with an awning.

Damn, It's Cold!

We pulled over to wait out what promised to be the heaviest weather of the day, and took the time to eat some snacks and make yet another set of wardrobe adjustments. After it began to look like it wasn't raining TOO hard, and that it wasn't likely to slack off any time soon, we decided to press on to the control. We were running considerably behind schedule at this point, what with all the stops for wardrobe adjustments. True to form, the rain stopped and the sun came out just as we reached the Birkenfeld Store.

At this point we were a little more than halfway through. I felt lousy; I purchased my traditional Idaho Spud candy bar, but I didn't really enjoy it. My hot chocolate was good when I drank it, but I later regretted that, as well. Andrew had hot chocolate and french fries, a combination he, too, later regretted. We chatted with the woman at the counter and warned her that she would be seeing a lot of cyclists on Saturday. I bought a t-shirt, and it was time to go. Right on schedule, it started to rain again, and the wind changed direction, so that we had a headwind on the way back, too.

I had now moved into "grim determination" mode. Andrew said he thought I'd gotten a second wind, but it was really more of a "I need to get done with this NOW." Anyone who knows me, knows that I can find SOMETHING to enjoy about every bike ride I do, regardless of conditions, but this ride was putting that personal quality to its most severe test ever.

It was a (fairly) straight shot on Hwy 47 from Birkenfield back to Vernonia, and I spent most of that stretch noting the many different ways my bicycle seemed to be falling apart under me. There's a suspicious "You haven't lubed me properly" click in the right pedal spindle, an interesting creak in the seat post, and some definite grittiness in the crank. Oh yeah, it's time for an overhaul. I was able to hear all these interesting noises because Hwy 47 (or Mist Road, as it is called in that area), had almost no traffic on it.

Back in Vernonia, this time for an open control. We stopped at the gas station because, well, it was the first place we came to. The sun was trying to come out again, but it was now getting pretty late, so even when it came out it was still cold (38 degrees, according to the bank's reader board). We spent less time at this control than the others because we were now in a hurry to get home. We still had at least another 3 hours of riding, judging by our performance so far. Shortly after leaving the outskirts of town, Andrew realized that he had forgotten to eat, so we had an impromptu snack stop (and some more wardrobe adjustments because the sun was finally completely out and we were headed up hill).

After re-crossing Hwy 26, the climb back to Timber was the most pleasant section of the ride. It had stopped precipitating (sort of), we had a slight tailwind, and we were less than 25 miles from home. At the summit we noted that much of the snow from the morning had melted.

Timber Summit in the Late Afternoon

The road was a bit drier, and so we could take the downhill with a little less caution. Of course, the more quickly I went downhill, the colder I would be, so it was time for more wardrobe adjustments. I put on every layer I had. Andrew needed to take a nature break, and headed of into the woods. I needed a break, too, but it's not as simple a procedure for me as it is for him, so I decided to hightail it for the Glenwood control, instead. I took the downhill as fast as I could, and was a Cecil-sicle by the time I reached the intersection with Hwy 6.

Glenwood is an open control. The cue sheet suggests two possible places. The first is the Glenwood store. It is about .3 of mile down Hwy 6 from the intersection with Timber Road. It does not have a flush toilet. It has a porta-potty. The last time I tried to use that porta-potty, it had not been cleaned for, oh, maybe 100 years. The other suggested location is the Shell Station. It is actually 2.4 miles further down Hwy 6, only .5 miles from the next turn on the cue sheet back onto Gales Creek Road. It closes at 8 PM, but that is after the control closing time, anyway. It has a flush toilet, although the bathroom was somewhat, um, fragrant.

As we turned onto Gales Creek Road and entered the homestretch, I finally started to enjoy the ride. My throat was raw from coughing, and I think I had lost a few bits of lung, but it wasn't raining, snowing, sleeting, or hailing. The sky was a beautiful Maxfield Parrish pink and we had a very slight tailwind. We reached the Grand Lodge 12 hours and 7 minutes after we left, and I was beat. I was too tired even to take advantage of the soaking pool, or have a beer. I crawled into my car, drove home, crawled into the shower, and crawled into bed.

It was a great ride.


brons2 said...

brr. It was in the lower 80s on Sunday for the 2nd day of the LSR 600K. Bit warm and humid but I'll take it over 30s and roadside snow.

Andrew said...

Cecil said it all. Let me add a couple of practical pointers for Randonneurs.

After passing the Timber summit, it's a short drop to those awful railway tracks. But the bends are shaded, and water runs from the roadcut across the pavement. Watch for ice — of cousre, once you see it, it will be too late to brake.

Hopefully, when you get to ride back down Timber Road in the evening, the road will be dry. But don't ignore the 10 MPH snake-with-a-hat speed advisory. OK, 10 MPH is unnecessary, but the road is greasy with unburned diesel and there are potholes and gravel. Better to arrive a few minutes later than not at all.


quel-fromage said...

Hoping to make out like Shackleton is grim, indeed. At least you didn't get wet reindeer fur in your lungs.

Kevin said...

You have such a way with words. It's always a pleasure to read your ride reports!

Yes indeed, Spring Break week has had some interesting weather!


David said...

Cecil, you are amazing!

"It was a great ride." lol

Simply amazing.

Hope you feel better soon!

lynnef said...

at least Andrew was "officially" on this ride and could help you with your flat tire :-)